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Healthy UK physics landscape revealed in 2021 Research Excellence Framework

12 May 2022

High-class physics research in universities is taking place right around the UK and not just in certain areas – but continued investment in our subject is needed.

The Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 reveals a notably healthy picture for physics, with 95% of physics research receiving an internationally excellent 3* or world-leading 4* rating.

This compares well to higher education as a whole, with 84% of research across all subjects being awarded one of those top two ratings.

Overall there were 44 submissions for physics in 2021, an increase of 7% from 2014, with physics and chemistry having the largest increases of the physical sciences.

There was an increase in the number of universities who made submissions in 2021, with the geographical distribution of the top universities in the physics sector showing that high-class research is taking place right around the UK and not confined to specific areas.

There has also been a 58% increase in the number of doctoral degrees awarded in physics since the 2008-2009 academic year.

Commenting on the framework, Institute of Physics Director of Science, Innovation and Skills, Louis Barson, said: “REF 2021 highlights UK universities delivering world-class research and shows the impact of investment in physics.

“It’s a good reminder of the value that physics brings, and its important role in UK economy and society. We need to continue to invest as a nation if we want to maintain and grow our position.”

The REF is a national assessment of the research performed across UK universities and takes place every six years. It assesses the quality of a university’s research output in terms of how highly cited it is and the impact it has had in both academia and the wider world.

Every UK university is required to make an institutional submission to the REF, and all are assessed on three distinct elements assessed.

These are the quality of its outputs (e.g. publications, performances, and exhibitions), their impact beyond academia (i.e. effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life), and the environment that supports the research (i.e. how well the environment supports the needs of the disciplines).

The REF is carried out by the four UK higher education funding bodies: Research England, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW), and the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland (DfE).

The aim is to secure the continuation of a world-class, dynamic and responsive research base, across the full academic spectrum within UK higher education.

By taking part in it, universities account for the investment in research they have received from the UK education funding bodies. This secures future allocations of public resources.

Around £2bn per year of research funding is allocated to UK universities by the four UK higher education funding bodies. It is known as mainstream quality-related (QR) funding, and can account for a significant proportion of a university’s research income.

By demonstrating the benefits of their research through taking part in the REF, universities are considered to be providing accountability for public investment.

It is also seen as an important benchmarking exercise that affects a university’s research reputation, and was first carried out in 2014, replacing the previous Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).

This second assessment is slightly delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but adheres to the initial assessment model of focusing on research outputs, research impact and research environment, although this time the REF team put a greater emphasis on the wider long-term impact that a piece of research has had on the UK’s economy, environment and quality of life.

Submissions are assessed according to the following criteria:

  • 4*: Quality that is world-leading in originality, significance and rigour.
  • 3*: Quality that is internationally excellent in originality, significance and rigour but which falls short of the highest standards of excellence.
  • 2*: Quality that is recognised internationally in originality, significance and rigour.
  • 1*: Quality that is recognised nationally in originality, significance and rigour.
  • Unclassified: Quality that falls below the standard of nationally recognised work. Or work which does not meet the published definition of research for the purposes of this assessment.